Current Genres of Fate: Pokémon and Margaret Thatcher

by Paul North

ThatcherAt key moments in policy speeches, Margaret Thatcher used to say "there is no alternative." After a few years and too many repetitions, the phrase became a joke. Journalists abbreviated it: TINA. There Is No Alternative. When TINA became a reflex, after it became her signature phrase, it lost its bite. Before becoming an empty slogan however, when Thatcher really meant it and the UK was listening, it was formidable. And it was already questionable too. One of the ironies about TINA was that Thatcher could only really say it in a situation where there was in fact at least one viable alternative. Why would you say There Is No Alternative if things couldn't possibly be otherwise? That would indeed make it a joke.

So, you only say TINA when there is another alternative so strong that you have to pretend it doesn't exist. A prime piece of rhetoric, TINA also alludes to a dearly held belief. The phrase was—and is—a statement about how we think things are, a belief about how the world is made. Say TINA and you imply this belief. As I say, you don't really call it an alternative, if there is only one. That is called reality. And this is just the point: TINA implies a single world with a single theory that fits all of the facts. So, if someone says TINA, listeners are reminded of their belief that, yes, there is one way that things are and one correct account of it. We can in good conscience ignore anything else. There is no decision left to make. The belief that goes along with TINA and which TINA reinforces we can call TOOT: There's Only One Theory. When she was saying TINA, Thatcher was implying TOOT at the same time. Mine workers striking? TOOT: there's only one theory and it tells us to break the back of their movement because the free flow of labor is best governed by the market. Jobless rate high? The same theory—the only one—says: inflation is the greatest evil in a post-industrial economy. That economy sluggish? The very same theory says: privatize national industries and increase worker productivity. Question is, can there really be only one theory covering human matters?

In Thatcher's speeches more than one theory is active anyway. Look at one of her earliest speeches as Prime Minister. She tells the Conservative Women's Conference on May 21, 1980: "Inflation, like heavy taxation, reduces freedom. It denies people the dignity of planning their own lives. How can you provide for the future when you don't know what your savings or your occupational pension will be worth next year, let alone in five years' time? Planning, whether for a young family, a home of your own or for retirement, becomes difficult. And when people cannot plan for themselves they are forced to look to the state."

The passage shows a play between at least two theories, small government on one hand and traditional European social forms on the other. Inflation needs to be reduced, Thatcher argues in this speech, so that the purchasing power of the working class can be restored. And this economic policy is supposed to be in service of a particular social form, the hetero-normative nuclear family and its accessories: home ownership and an old-fashioned view of the working life—40 years and then retirement. Note the crack that begins to open here between neo-liberal economic reasoning and neo-conservative social reasoning.

Within Thatcherism, within TINA interpreted as TOOT, there was this tension. The value of money needs to be stabilized on behalf of big business, unions need to be busted on behalf of big business, national services need to be privatized on behalf of big business. Blow out worker protections, abandon price controls on public utilities, and give away direct influence over social services. And this is supposed to support the traditional social norm of the nuclear family. The working and middle classes don't benefit directly from these changes. All they get is the vague promise of "job stability." The ideology of the family is flown in to cover over these acts of piracy. This extreme tension in Thatcher's early speech extended into her very identity. You never knew which of the two Thatchers was speaking: the social conservative or the market ideologue. Her hair said family, her teeth said profit.

True: Thatcher governed at a time when you could still believe the two could be compatible.

Now the secret is out. The return to traditional conservative "values" gives cover to and also enables the neo-liberal destruction of conservative values. Think of the bitter ironies already in play during Thatcher's own time. If you lived in a social unit where a male head of household was the single bread-winner, with a woman in a traditional role, the family settled in one township, and the potential laborers not running to join the mobile economy, where no one was angling for socialist or feminist alternatives, and moreover, if you were happy to remain at the bottom of the heap, of course you needed to worry about inflation! You were at its mercy. Every penny increase on a quart of milk meant a penny less for rent. Imagine the irony: the coal miner needs the cheaper coal that results from his worsened working conditions because he can't pay a higher price for it. Labor protections stripped, wages lowered, and the requirement for his daily output raised—he still had to heat his house.

I'm less interested in the obvious contradictions between neo-liberal and neo-conservative logics (not to mention within each one individually), than in the picture of fate that allows them to seem like a single theory. TINA, There Is No Alternative implies a world in which one single, total explanation absorbs every fact. TOOT, There's Only One Theory. No fact goes unexplained, no part of reality has more than one possible meaning or consequence. This is one of fate's standard moves: to spread out, fill in the cracks, and leave no space unfilled by its logic. It doesn't care if there are ten conflicting theories about why. What counts is that fate can give the appearance of a total theory and a single world. Everywhere you look, fate grins back at you. "Already here," fate says. Don't bother going this way. But this is a ruse, a trick. To get to the point where we believe TINA, we have already accepted a mishmash of disparate theories as one.

We are so desperate to believe there is only one theory that we let our authorities freely mix incompatible explanations. Christian charity here, American ingenuity there. Here a pure unfettered market, there a nuclear family. Yet it is not the contradictions that are fateful: it is the appearance of a single, all-encompassing logic.

PokemonOne thing actually has this sort of logic, video games. All the freedom of action and decision you imagine for yourself at the beginning of the game is met at each turn by the code. Opportunities on the first screen are limited, but they link up with others, and still others. In any game there are loads of alternatives. But earlier opportunities restrict later ones and these restrict what follows. TINA—there is no alternative to the one chain of alternatives.

Let Professor Oak welcome you to "the world of Pokémon." This is Pokémon Red, the Gameboy game from the mid-90's that came back with a vengeance last year. Oak may call it "the world of Pokémon," but this world does not belong to the "pocket monsters"; it belongs to Oak and his lab assistants. The scientists are in charge. They study Pokémon for the sake of knowledge, though if this were the only thing going on, the game would be pretty boring. Thus there are two objectives in the game: scientific study and conquest. Why two objectives? Where conquest doesn't make sense, study steps in to justify a player's decisions. The overarching narrative is full of discrepancies like this. Prof. Oak's lab both collects data on the elusive creatures and helps the player's avatar capture, tame, and train them to fight. Through these half-wild half-pets, the main avatar, a little boy, wages endless battles. Why does he fight? Who knows. It doesn't matter. This is a general struggle for existence, as Darwin put it—and indeed evolution is one of several theories hovering in the background of the game, motivating the action.

At a basic level, any video game is a fateful undertaking. You could say that these games are procedures, discovered by the player through playing, for subtracting opportunities for action one by one until there is only one possible action left: winning. TINA: I win. It seems illogical, but the fact is that in these games losing is much freer than winning. When you lose you get to play on, make further decisions, try out a new direction, discover other rationales. You get a new "life." The reason 12-year-olds start the game over immediately when they win is because winning is worse than death. Die and you get another life. Once you've won, it's game over.

Throughout the play, each individual action is governed by the underlying code. You have more alternatives, but only a few lead you forward. There is always a best move. Here you ought to do this. There you ought to do that. You don't know the "oughts" in advance. Playing means discovering and complying with the game's "oughts." Along the way you develop a set of semi-conscious imperatives that match the "oughts" of the code. Oh yes, the code writes itself into you. To be a player means to incorporate into yourself the unchanging reasoning that underlies the game.

Although "playing" means internalizing the chain of oughts, there are still at the same time different reasons available in the game's story for justifying your decisions. What is true in politics is true in video games. Any two decisions you make, even when separated by microseconds, may be justified in radically different ways.

Take Pokémon Red. The game involves training. With each battle a Pokémon can learn, develop its special powers, and become a better tool for winning. This element of the story calls upon a neo-liberal re-reading of nature. Monsters represent improvable capacities by which their trainer can gain advantage over others and get a higher ranking. With each fight, the boy trains his Pokémon and betters his chances in future battles. Resources are limited, supplies must be bought and used wisely. Energy and lives can be earned, stored up, and deployed strategically, and the economy of scarcity is what impels you forward. You must win to keep winning.

A second story is slapped onto the neo-liberal tale of self-improvement and struggle for advantage. This is the story about science. To prevent any player from being content, say, with winning a few battles and then retiring to a pokéfarm, a general directive from Prof. Oak says: while you fight, map out the world of Pokémon. This is Oak's grand purpose. He aspires to assemble a pokédex—a complete guide to all of pokédom. Thus he gives the boy and his opponent automatic data recorders. To both of them? Yes, and along with the data recorders they get a severe conflict in their motivations. At one and the same time, they compete against each other for better powers for themselves, and they also work together to produce knowledge for science. Does the data collection aid the players in their individual quests for victory? Not really. Do the Pokémon battles aid the data collection in the name of neutral science? Not always. The two opposed stories about what a player is doing in the game don't affect the play so much as fill in the gaps in motivation that otherwise make the game rather incomprehensible.

In life, things aren't like this—isn't that right? Well, for one thing, in the game the code is there first, and playing means looking for the hidden "oughts" encoded by the designers. Justifications that tell a player why she ought to make a certain decision in a certain situation—whether for data collection, for personal gain, or because supplies are running out—are really just ornaments to the hard dependencies of the chain of oughts. These reasons and narrative purposes are there to make us think that the game is like life, whereas it is really a matter of predetermined fate. Life contrasts quite starkly with this. We desperately want to locate the hidden "oughts" but truth be told, it is usually pretty hard to imagine that there is a preexisting code. This is why, when politicians and other authorities tell us there is, we take notice.

And they do: and in order to convince us that their decisions are just responses to fate, they put together disparate and even conflicting stories to fill in the gaps. When we get into a sticky moral situation, = neo-conservative reasoning is there to guide us. When we get into a sticky economic situation, neo-liberal rationales do the trick. Will it matter that the one, neo-conservatism, argues for a strong constitutional democracy, solid liberal institutions of state with a relatively small, closed market, and an ideological foreign policy (spreading democracy); while the other, neo-liberalism, argues for a small weak state, with a bare minimum of basic institutions to support the market, and a pragmatic foreign policy that opens foreign markets to US trade, regardless of the effects on non-US polities and people?

Do we ever see the overarching theory that justifies these unholy amalgamations? No. That's because there is none. But—not to worry! Just push "go" on different convictions when you need them and soon it will begin to look like one single theory. Tell us TINA while implying TOOT. On a side note: here is where the digital world has a real advantage over political life. You can—you must—debug the program. We never debug our political operating systems. That's probably because somewhere deep down we know that if we did they would crash.